The U.S. Navy's Remarkable Transformation
Captain Edward L. Beach, Jr., USN (Ret.),
a distinguished and highly decorated naval officer and submariner, also
is a noted naval historian and novelist. Beginning with Run Silent, Run
Deep, his classic novel depicting submarine warfare during World War
II, continuing with his solidly researched history The United States
Navy: 200 Years, and culminating in last year's publication of Salt and
Steel: Reflections of a Submariner, Beach has written 13 books--continuing
the writing tradition established by his father, who also was a Naval
Academy graduate and career naval officer.
Two and a quarter centuries ago, on the North American continent a new
nation was created, born of an idealistic and truly unprecedented concept
of self-government. Formed in revolution, it created a navy that it disbanded
when the revolution was over. The nation's founding fathers apparently
thought a distant, idealistic nation, with no territorial ambition against
any other, would excite no enmity--nor need to defend itself against
anything except armies, or aborigines, on the land. It would need no
navy. After only a decade, however, this premise was found not to be
true, and the U.S. Navy was recreated.
As might be expected, the new Navy then authorized has had its ups and
downs. Its total demise between 1785 and 1794 was the worst example,
and the nadir of U.S. sea power. Now, on the threshold of the 21st century,
the United States Navy has flowered into the most powerful sea-force
the world has known.
Building on the pioneering achievements attained during the 20th century
by its air, surface, submarine, and amphibious forces, today's Navy has
launched a revolution at sea. Marked by new generations of highly accurate,
all-weather, and long-range land-attack weapons and supported by innovative
developments in combat systems, information technology, and warfighting
doctrine, this revolution will have lasting impacts on U.S. national
security for decades to come.
Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jay L. Johnson recently proclaimed that
the U.S. Navy's continued forward presence and the ongoing development
of global-economic interdependence would make the next 100 years a "naval
century." But throughout the progression of events at sea of the
past 100 years, including today's revolutionary technical innovations,
the Navy's development is a continuous story of dedicated people--men
and women, officers and Sailors, uniformed and civilian--who were and
are committed to a vision of U.S. naval power at sea.
The United States was fortunate in having the navy of Britain against
which to whet its newly reconstituted naval blade early in its history:
the War of 1812. This, no doubt, accounts for many historians' continued
fascination with that short conflict. U.S. Navy ships were excellent
and, in the main, well-handled. Victories imparted a great upsurge of
confidence, and in the war's aftermath the United States began to build
ever more magnificent warships--so well-designed and constructed that
they received admiring plaudits the world over. But following the War
of 1812 there was little hard employment for them. The U.S. Navy had
no Napoleonic anvil on which to shape and forge itself for several decades.
The most important result of those formative years was international
acceptance of U.S. naval and maritime competence.
U.S. bluejackets looked with pride on their series of victories over
their mother navy, that of Great Britain, and made much of the naval
traditions then born. But for half a century U.S. naval personnel found
no employment worthy of all their efforts. Then came the Civil War--not,
however, an "ideal" war upon the high seas. With only a few
exceptions, the Civil War was a coastal war of blockade and commercial
Nonetheless, the "War Between the States," as it was sometimes
called back then, gave much to the Navy in terms of leadership and innovative
ship design. But after it was over the nation was hurting badly. In recovery
it turned its eyes westward, across the inviting land, and again allowed
its Navy to sink into decay.
Surprisingly, next to nothing was done with the ironclads and monitors
developed by both sides during the Civil War. The explanation was probably
the combination of returning isolationism, the cost of modernizing, and
the fact that the nation was mortally tired. The wind was free, if sometimes
unpredictable; sailing a ship was a true art, proudly held, that cost
very little money; steam engines and coal were totally inartistic, and
very expensive besides. Economy had become the national watchword, so
far as the Navy was concerned.
The Navy continued to "show the flag," but in embarrassment,
in old wooden ships that were usually good to look at but otherwise useless.
Foreign men-of-war left them always behind with their iron hulls and
coal-burning steam engines. In the meantime, Europe, Japan, and even
China had begun to apply the discoveries of the industrial revolution
to their own imperial navies. Again, America's leaders of the day felt
no obvious need for a navy. Improvement comparable to that experienced
after the War of 1812 would have to wait until the end of the century,
when, after another victorious war, an activist president would be able
to set things right.
This period after the Civil War, from 1865 to 1885, is therefore remembered
as "the time of the doldrums," not much better than the total
demise experienced 80 years earlier. Worse, it earned our Navy the professional
ridicule of thoughtful men of the sea. The U.S. Navy had its own thoughtful
men too, however, and their demand for modernization led to the creation
of the U.S. Naval Institute in 1873, the founding of the Naval War College
in 1884, and finally to a national demand that the Navy be set to rights.
Two decades after the Civil War, the Navy at last began to build steel
warships with steam engines and modern guns in turrets. The battleship
USS Maine, whose destruction was one of the proximate causes of the Spanish-American
War, was one of the first of these.
From the point of view of dedicated naval officers and others, all this
happened just in time. William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer are
today looked upon as purveyors of "yellow journalism," accused
of instigating the 1898 war with Spain to sell newspapers. Another interpretation
of that era would, more fairly perhaps, put them at the forefront of
national unrest resulting from an enlarged view of the world.
To a large degree, this "ideal little war with Spain" mirrored
the War of 1812 in one important way. From it, as in 1815, grew the warship-building
campaign that the United States should have started in 1865. At the turn
of the 20th century the U.S. Navy needed good warships and good leadership.
Theodore Roosevelt provided both. Before the end of his second term as
president, he was able to send a fleet of first-class, modern battleships--the "Great
White Fleet"--on a breath-taking cruise around the world to show
the flag in a way entirely different from the way it had been shown just
a few years earlier. It had a different message as well. Ebullient Theodore
Roosevelt did not put it into quite these words, but it was clear enough.
The United States was beginning to command at sea.
Idealism and Reformers
The Navy's formative years had lasted 125 years. Now, at the birth of
the 20th century, it was an established institution. The question of
whether the nation should have a strong Navy had been resoundingly answered
in the affirmative one more time--this time for the foreseeable future.
The United States now stretched across the North American continent
and had acquired, in the bargain, a sizable overseas empire in the Caribbean
and in the far Western Pacific. The protection of these territories was
a national responsibility. With the advent of more powerful and faster
steamships, and the expansion of global telecommunications, the world
had become a smaller place. Thought and policy were now independent of
physical movement. The United States reached from coast to coast, and
it had to look in both directions.
As part of this new international focus, the United States also began
building the Panama Canal (a tremendous job, that). The mammoth undertaking
was completed only a few years later, making possible easy redeployment
of the Navy's ships, and all the great ships that came after them, between
the East and West Coasts of the continent (until, with the advent of
the modern aircraft carrier, some of them had become too big).
Only a few years after completion of that extraordinary undertaking,
the second generation of Roosevelt's Great White Fleet, no longer white-and-buff,
but painted a haze-grey "war color," was a third again faster
than the first, its ships twice as big, some able to fire shells weighing
half a ton or more to ranges beyond the horizon from three times as many
huge-barreled, turreted rifles. In the meantime, Germany and England,
both well ahead of the United States as naval powers, had begun a battleship-building
race. Both nations had amassed fleets of these new Dreadnoughts by the
time war came again to Europe in 1914.
The deep underlying idealism of that generation of naval officers also
made its mark on the U.S. Navy. As technological development drove the
horizons of thought to fill vacuums undreamed of in the days of sail,
they strove to harness their minds to improve the Navy. There was much
to work on.
Foremost among those bent on reforming and improving the Navy was Rear
Adm. William Sowden Sims. Probably no American naval leader before or
since, with the possible exception of Fleet Adm. Chester W. Nimitz years
later, or Adm. Arleigh Burke later still, has had the charismatic personality
of Sims. He was the leader of an extraordinary group of reformers who
worked tirelessly within the system to better it. Widely acclaimed as
the person responsible for teaching the Navy how to shoot straight, he
also made lasting contributions to the proper design of the most important
ships of the time--the battleships--and in the proper and efficient organization
of the Navy and the Navy Department. The naval bureaucracy's resistance
to the correction of the many existing deficiencies in ship design--and
its near-automatic reflex to reject all new ideas or technological developments--came
in for hot and frequent criticism from him.
World War I was the biggest war ever fought in that small, convoluted
peninsula of the Euro-Asian continent. It caused fantastic loss of life
and irrevocably changed the shape and face of that part of the world.
The conflict started from economic rivalry and militarism among the principal
nations, but self-destruction, unprecedented civilian suffering, the
fall of monarchies and spread of revolution, and a predictable second
coming were its principal legacies. It fully deserved both of the names
by which it is known to history: The Great War, The World War, and, because
it was fought a second time, World War I.
Unfortunately for navy buffs and historians, the conflict saw only a
few naval battles. Only one, Jutland in 1916, could be compared to Horatio
Nelson's Trafalgar (1805) in terms of forces engaged, but it was not
comparable in outcome. At Trafalgar, British forces totally wiped out
the French-Spanish fleet, sinking or capturing 19 ships and driving away
the rest in confused flight. At Jutland, there was no decisive victory.
The British suffered by far the greater loss of ships and personnel,
but the Germans seized the chance, under dark of night, to disengage.
So Jutland became known to history as indecisive. No further battle at
sea followed, the stress of war was too great, and Germany was forced
to give up when the impact of added U.S. military muscle began to make
A division of five U.S. battleships formed the initial American Battle
Squadron as part of the British Grand Fleet at Scapa Flow, Scotland,
but the major employment of U.S. naval forces during the war was in convoying
supplies of all sorts across the Atlantic. When Sims arrived in London
in 1917 to direct the Navy's operations in European waters, England's
Adm. John Jellicoe, Great Britain's First Sea Lord, related his country's
desperate situation at the hands of Germany's unrestricted submarine
warfare. A cable to Washington, D.C., brought prompt action with the
dispatch of a first destroyer division under the command of Cdr. Joseph
In the eyes of the world at large the major naval development of that
war was an entirely different type of combat--under the sea--followed
closely by the unheralded marriage of the airplane and the warship.
The Road to Pearl Harbor
Had there been a counterpart to Sims during the interwar period culminating
in the devastating Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the debacle
in naval warfare that took place at the outset of World War II might
have been prevented. After World War I, the world embarked with some
enthusiasm on its first attempts to limit arms. Since battleships were
the biggest and most obvious military objects, as well as the most expensive,
they logically became the first targets for reduction. But professional
military persons are not the only ones with better vision backward than
forward. At the time they fell under limitations, battleships of World
War I design were already obsolescent, and navies were undergoing great
and hidden changes--and reductions. By the early 1930s, the U.S. fleet
had been reduced to a force of just over 300 active Navy ships.
Submarines and aircraft were beginning their slow--and contentious--rise
to acceptance as first-line naval-weapons carriers. The cult of the battleship
as the backbone of the "real Navy" persisted, however. Absent
a Sims or an influential reform constituency, the natural tendency was
for a return to the old ways. The U.S. Navy after World War I--strong
and feeling good about itself--was feeding on itself.
The inability to recognize the need for change when it is there, or
the refusal to allow change from the old ways, can only give the advantage
to someone else. The Navy's wonderful fleet of great World War I battleships--all
commissioned during or immediately after that war--was to discover this
lesson afresh on 7 December 1941.
The idea of a ship devoted solely to handling wheeled aircraft on a
long flat deck received little encouragement during the 1920s and 1930s.
How could an aircraft carrier--unarmored, big, and vulnerable--remain
afloat after being hit by a salvo of 16-inch shells? A carrier might
be useful for scouting, but it had no business in the battle line. Only
aviators asked the newly pertinent question: What use was a battle line
with weapons of 20-mile range if aircraft carriers could send weapons
with greater accuracy ten times as far?
Similar questions were being asked by those acquainted with the tremendous
threat posed by submarine warfare. The submarine force also would have
been well served had it had someone like Sims to look into the design
and performance of its torpedoes. Their design problems paralleled the
deficiencies he had corrected in the guns and ammunition-handling systems
on surface warships. When World War II began, U.S. submariners found
their torpedoes running so deep that even a zero-depth setting was often
not shallow enough to hit an enemy ship. Torpedoes sometimes detonated
harmlessly before reaching the target. Design flaws in the weapons' detonators
meant that the torpedo might be a dud if it hit a ship's hull squarely--i.e.,
a perfect shot. Throughout the war, torpedoes occasionally ran in a circle--sometimes
with fatal results to the submarine that had fired them. Nearly two years
of the war would elapse before the first three of these design problems
were identified and corrected. The fourth never was. An entrenched Navy
torpedo-design bureaucracy in the Bureau of Ordnance--coupled with tight
peacetime purse strings on live-fire testing--critically hampered the
submarine force's effectiveness during the early years of the war and
resulted in the needless combat loss of many submariners.
Fortunately for the Navy, and the nation, far-sighted innovators and
congressional advocates for a strong U.S. fleet (Rep. Carl Vinson, especially)
persisted in their efforts during the late 1930s to build a modern Navy
sized properly to meet the strategic requirements levied upon it by national
leadership and world events. Nearly every class of major WWII-era combatant
warships--with the exception of the mass-produced "jeep" escort
carrier--was designed before war began. Modern aircraft also were on
the drawing boards to replace the fleet's slow and outdated designs.
U.S. Marines perfected the principles of amphibious warfare by trial
and error during the 1930s--setting the stage for the success of their
island-hopping campaigns in the Pacific.
Intellectual ferment and war games at the Naval War College paid their
dividends too. Following World War II, Fleet Adm. Chester W. Nimitz--a
1923 graduate--observed that, with the exception of Japan's "kamikaze" suicide
planes, "... the war with Japan had been reenacted in the game rooms
at the Naval War College by so many people, and in so many ways, that
nothing happened during the war that was a surprise."
The Global Armada
If it can be said that the U.S. Navy had only about 56 hours of combat
experience prior to World War II, it also can be said that World War
II was one long gigantic battle with almost unrelieved stress on all
participants. Respites in harbor were conspicuously few. In the Atlantic,
it was a long, torturous, weather-traumatized war against German submarines.
There was little action against surface raiders, particularly warships,
since the Royal Navy had eliminated or neutralized most of these before
U.S. entry into the war. It is an axiom of naval warfare that the entire
purpose of navies and sea power is to influence events on land. The success
of Operation Overlord, the D-Day invasion of Hitler's "Fortress
Europe," was enabled by the success of its naval assault phase--Operation
Neptune--in achieving strategic surprise, maintaining control of the
English Channel, and successfully landing and resupplying allied forces
in the face of bitter opposition from entrenched Nazi forces.
From the point of view of the participants, prosecution of the naval
war can be divided into four basic fields of combat arms: air, surface,
submarine, and amphibious. The importance of mobile sea-based logistics
and service-force ships also was vividly demonstrated in the Navy's ability
to operate continuously at sea in a forward-deployed posture, far from
major shore support or repair facilities.
Technical research and development played key roles in the victory at
sea--reflected most dramatically in the wartime application of radar
on U.S. surface ships, submarines, and aircraft. The unsung heroes of
cryptology and intelligence made decisive contributions throughout the
war. The Navy also was blessed by an unusually strong team of highly
capable visionary strategists and combat leaders--best exemplified by
Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Ernest J. King at the seat of government
and Chester Nimitz, Pacific Fleet commander, in the field. By August
1945, U.S. aircraft factories and shipyards--working around the clock
in a prodigious industrial effort--produced a fleet of more than 103,000
Navy and Marine aircraft, and 6,700 surface warships, submarines, patrol
craft, amphibious vessels, and auxiliary ships. The U.S. Navy's global
armada was unparalleled in size before or since.
Commanders in Nimitz's principal task forces shared his assertive outlook
on the conduct of the war with Japan, and they never ceased to press
their advantage when the tide of battle turned. Submariners, accustomed
to the idea that only a ship able to submerge in the face of superior
forces could survive in the far Western Pacific, particularly marveled
at the surface fleet's entrance into areas they had heretofore thought
accessible only to them. They marveled also at the huge fleet of aircraft
carriers--so large that even from the air only a part of it could be
seen at any one time--their country had created.
Marine Corps amphibious doctrine matured as the costly lessons of early
assaults from the sea in the Pacific were painfully assimilated. Marines
emphasized the need to strike hard and prosecute the land campaign quickly--believing
an all-out attack in the beginning would result in fewer casualties in
the long run. In their island-hopping campaign--or in Gen. Douglas MacArthur's
imaginative leap-frogging amphibious attacks on Japanese forces in New
Guinea, for that matter--there was nowhere either side could retreat
to. The battle, once joined, was to the death.
Pearl Harbor clearly illustrated, among many other things, the fallacy
of permitting respect for old tradition, extremely valuable in the right
context, to rank above research, logic, and capability. The battleships
sunk there could have rendered a good account of themselves against other
battleships 15 miles away. Against aircraft from carriers 250 miles away
they were powerless, and the embarrassment showed.
Among naval historians, it is customary to describe the attack on Pearl
Harbor as a "blessing in disguise," except for the loss of
life, for in an instant of time it demolished a pattern of thinking that
might have been disastrous had it continued long into the war period.
Suppose Japan had declared war in the accepted manner?
From all one can today surmise, there might soon have occurred a fleet
action somewhere in the vicinity of Wake Island, as projected in Adm.
Husband Kimmel's war plans. But the Japanese fleet had ten first-line
carriers in the Pacific--the U.S. Navy only three, possibly augmented
by two more hastily returned from the Atlantic theater. In a war at sea,
five U.S. carriers would have stood no chance against Japan's ten. The
fleet engagement would have been a disaster far greater than the one
that actually occurred at Pearl Harbor. For this interpretation, we have
Nimitz's fairly well-informed opinion to thank. World history, at all
events, might have been very different.
What actually happened, of course, was that the demise of U.S. battleships
turned the Pacific War over to the forces best-equipped to deal with
it: aircraft carriers, miraculously sent away from Pearl Harbor just
in time, and submarines, outfitted with faulty torpedoes though they
were. This history is well known, although there has never been an adequate
explanation for the orders, just before the Pearl Harbor debacle, that
sent the carriers out of harm's way (nor for the failure to proof-test
the torpedoes better). Nimitz's leadership was inspired; U.S. code-breaking
also was inspired. The Battle of Midway, occurring only six months after
Pearl Harbor, was the turning point of the war, although it had three
years yet to run. American blood lust was up, another result of Pearl
Harbor, and Japan had nowhere to go but down.
Essex-class carrier task forces made progressively greater inroads against
Japanese forces after Midway, as did the Marine Corps--and so did increasingly
effective submarines. The great fleet battle everyone was expecting finally
took place, late in 1944 at Leyte Gulf, along with the associated battles
of the Philippine Sea, Surigao Strait, and San Bernadino Strait. Rejuvenated,
modern, and well-fought Navy surface combatants played their invaluable
supporting roles with telling effect, but the war at sea, fought in desperation
by Japan, was now like no naval battle ever joined. When it was over,
the Japanese navy had ceased to exist, and it was recognized that naval
warfare would hereafter be different from everything that had gone before.
In any description of World War II, there must at least be mention of
the tremendous effect that was achieved--and at what low cost--by the
submarine forces of the warring nations. This was outstandingly the case
with Germany and the United States. For strategic and operational reasons
it was less true of the British, Italian, and Japanese submarine forces.
Taking the U.S. Submarine Force Pacific Fleet as an example, during World
War II it sank one third of Japan's navy and nearly two thirds of her
merchant marine. Had U.S. torpedoes performed as intended, Japan's losses
would have been much greater still, particularly early in the war, and
it might have ended much sooner. Yet, the total U.S. Submarine Force,
including all support personnel, amounted to only two percent of the
U.S. Navy--a perfect example of the tremendous disparity of result when
unprecedented techniques are introduced into old-fashioned situations.
The Nuclear Revolution
In the decades that followed World War II, there was no time for the
Navy's peaceful consolidation of its remarkable accomplishment. The nation
faced an uneasy peace, and U.S. sea services responded to a continuing
stream of international crises and contingencies. Long years of Cold
War confrontation with the Soviet Union were spiked with politically
limited--and socially divisive--wars in Korea and Vietnam. In World War
II's aftermath, as the Navy's size was radically reduced (to 634 active
ships by June 1950), its ships and Sailors had to be driven harder than
ever before. Crews spent more time at sea and had less time for the upkeep
of their ships or, in a manner of speaking, for themselves. The pressures
of exercises increased and, because of rapidly changing technology, so
did the demands for proficiency. The trend continues to the present day.
World War II ended with deployment of the nuclear weapon, and it is
now clear that this will be its all-time legacy. At the end of the war
many submariners began to wonder whether future years would bring worries
about atomic depth charges. No one, so far as is known, at that time
thought about the implications that nuclear power might have for submarines
instead of against them. No one, that is, except a certain small "Engineering
Duty Only" captain who had been assigned to the electrical engineering
section of the Navy Bureau of Ships until, by some happenstance perhaps
not entirely accidental (he sought it assiduously), he was directed to
look into nuclear power for propulsion of ships.
To detail that extraordinary man's accomplishment is not the purpose
of this essay, except to point out that, except for the technical spikes
represented by early U.S. inventors, the last half of the history of
U.S. Navy submarines--and today's nuclear-powered aircraft carrier--has
been totally dominated by the nuclear power plant developed by Adm. Hyman
George Rickover and his devoted helpers.
Difficult though he admittedly was, when it came to nuclear power Rickover
emphatically had what the U.S. Navy needed. First, he had the foresight
to see, far ahead of all his contemporaries, what a nuclear power plant
could do for the submarine and, later, its most potent surface warship.
The best WWII-era submarines, with postwar improvements, were capable
of 20 knots on the surface, in which condition they could range about
10,000 miles on a full load of diesel fuel, and 15 knots submerged on
the storage battery for an hour--after which the "can" would
be "flat" (the battery completely discharged).
At very slow speed, a submerged submarine hunted by enemy antisubmarine
units could stay down for perhaps 48 hours, but would then have to surface,
exhausted, only a hundred or so miles away from where the ordeal began--or
at least put up a snorkel pipe--to recharge her batteries. At high speed,
the much higher rate of discharge of the battery exhausted it much quicker
(in the foregoing example, only 15 miles away).
By contrast, a submarine with a nuclear power plant would theoretically
be capable of 30 or more knots, either surfaced or submerged, for several
years. In the sense that a reactor is nearly as inexhaustible as the
wind, in unsupported-cruising range Rickover brought the Navy back to
the days of sail. More than this, he foresaw, for example, that the Arctic
Ocean, heretofore inaccessible to men-of-war, would be a new operational
arena for a submerged boat with an inexhaustible supply of fuel and able
to make oxygen from electrolysis of the sea. Breaking through the ice
from beneath in case of necessity, as for firing a weapon, was now the
only problem--and he proposed innovative means to do this, too.
Today, the Navy powers two types of ship with nuclear reactors. First,
the huge Nimitz-class aircraft carriers that, except for provisions (i.e.,
food), can stay at sea literally for years. At the height of the crisis
with Iran during the Carter administration, the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower
remained under way for nine consecutive months save for a four-day port
visit to Singapore. Today's carrier battle groups can be, and routinely
are, replenished by air, and personnel changes are accomplished in the
same way. Along with all its other functions, the aircraft carrier simultaneously
serves its own antisubmarine, antiaircraft, and land-attack escorts as
a massive supply ship for fuel and other categories of provisions.
Second, the submarines: no longer "boats" (although that term
is still affectionately used), but full-fledged ships in the complete
sense of the word. Of the two types of submarines in the Navy today,
the "attack" class, which carries not only sophisticated guided-and-homing
torpedoes--now thoroughly tested as a matter of routine--also is armed
with highly accurate, 750-mile-range, subsonic Tomahawk cruise missiles
that are fired from beneath the surface of the sea. An improved 1,500-mile-range
tactical Tomahawk is in the works. Nowadays, neither torpedo nor missile
misses its target, if properly prepared and launched.
The other type of submarine, the fleet ballistic-missile "boomer"--
officially the Ohio-class Trident missile submarine--is configured to
carry 24 Trident II missiles that, like the Tomahawk, are launched submerged.
During its ballistic trajectory, each of these 24 missiles can release
as many as nine "MIRVs" (Multiple Independently Targetable
Re-entry Vehicles--the exact figure is classified and will be reduced
if the START II treaty is finally ratified). Each vehicle is a guided
missile of its own, possessing a nuclear explosive force more powerful
than the bombs that laid Hiroshima and Nagasaki to waste. It may be asked
if anyone can name any nation on this earth that could stand a single
broadside from such a ship.
Today the submarine is, arguably, second only to the aircraft carrier
in its importance to the Navy and the country, and the submarine force
feels it may ultimately even transcend the carrier--for only the nuclear-powered
submarine can hide effectively in the sea.
A Remarkable Transformation
These two dominantly destructive weapons systems, aircraft carriers
and submarines, are however ameliorated by the inherent ability of the
mother system of both: the ship. The ship--aircraft carrier or submarine,
guided-missile cruiser or amphibious assault ship--brings flexibility
with it wherever it goes, until the moment when it must go into action.
Then it can be diplomatic or brazen, gentle or hard. Most likely, either
the carrier air wing, surface combatant, amphibious ready group, or submarine
would begin its function softly, barely making its presence felt: a nicety
much easier for the surface ship to achieve than the submarine, but denied
to all other arms. Any ship, her presence known or unknown, represents
practical possibility for instant action under the control of the U.S.
government. It can bring the ultimate weapon to the point of contact,
ready in all respects to unleash its terrible power, and then hold its
hand or let it all go, as the situation, and the nation's leaders, may
require. "The lesson," Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery
wrote in his History of Warfare, "is this: In all history the nation
which has had control of the seas has, in the end, prevailed."
The remarkable transformation now underway in the modernization of today's
Navy and in the design of tomorrow's will further increase its combat
capabilities, operational concepts, and utility in profound and revolutionary
ways. During the Cold War, the Navy-Marine Corps team responded to nearly
200 international crises--one almost every three months. During the past
three years, the response rate increased to nearly one per month. Such
high-tempo operations are likely to continue for the foreseeable future--but
with fundamental changes. The lesson that Secretary of the Navy Richard
Danzig draws from recent operations is that, for the first time in history,
naval forces are being called upon to influence events ashore in landlocked
countries--with long-range missile attacks on terrorist camps in Afghanistan,
for example, and sea- and air-launched strikes against Serbia and its
forces in landlocked Kosovo.
The Navy now is developing even more accurate, long-range, all-weather
weapons--missiles, aerial bombs, guided munitions, and naval guns--to
take the fight far inland from the sea. By 2015, the Marine Corps also
will execute its future warfighting concept--Operational Maneuver From
the Sea--with faster, larger, and more efficient assault vehicles, aircraft,
and air-cushion landing craft. Highly networked information systems will
tightly link all Navy warfighting disciplines and forces--air, surface,
subsurface, amphibious--in real time, across vast geographical areas.
In the words of CNO Johnson, "They will use this coordination to
bring combined, powerful forces to bear at the best place, at the right
moment--creating rapid and overwhelming victory."
The surface of the sea, that tremendous membrane between air and water,
can easily and cheaply carry huge cargoes of essentials. On it travels
the world's commerce, the life-blood of nations. This is why it has always,
since the beginning of time, been the object of competition or combat,
and this will not change. In the modern context, the contest for domination
of this all-important membrane has fallen to the U.S. Navy. Today, there
is no other naval power--nor combination of powers--able to mount an
effective opposition to the U.S. Navy's dominance as the preeminent global
But, just as the ocean's surface is continually transformed, so too
can today's international circumstances change in unpredictable ways.
Despite the continuing growth in the reach and power of its strike capabilities,
the Navy is fast approaching its smallest size since the depths of the
Great Depression. Unavoidably, the number of ships available for forward
deployments plays an important role in the nation's ability to lower
the risk to U.S. vital interests. To do this it must ensure a potent
U.S. military response is available on instant notice anywhere in the
world, and it must at the same time keep the burden of high-tempo operation
at levels acceptable to Sailors, Marines, and their families.
It must do this. If it cannot, it will cease to be an effective force.
Today's U.S. Navy owes much to the British Navy of the days of sail,
but the many lessons must be understood. One is that forced servitude
on board ship is a thing of the past (back then it included impressment,
no liberty, and performance through fear of the lash). Today's Sailors
and Marines will follow good leadership (the Marines do it best), but
they will not accept unrequited burdens.
During the decade of the 1990s there has been a quantum leap in capabilities
in all of the Navy's ships. To a nation exploding with new and undreamed-of
computer and information technology, it is totally unacceptable for its
warships to attempt to function with less than absolute state-of-the-art
perfection when the fate of the nation, and of the young men and women
making up each ship's crew, may hang in the balance. Anyone, even a computer
neophyte, privileged to visit the combat-direction spaces of one of the
Navy's first-line ships--destroyer, cruiser, aircraft carrier, amphibious
assault ship, or submarine--comes away with an impression of extraordinary
electronic capability, not only in the machines themselves, but also
on the multiple large screens where the amazingly intricate information
they use to manage and direct operations is displayed.
Equally impressive is the manner by which the commanding officer of
such a ship controls her, usually from a combat-direction center--buried
somewhere in her bowels--where there is the greatest access to information
in real time. Control of all her weapons is at his or her fingertips
and, if everything is as it should be, none of the ship's complicated
weapons fails in its mission. This is reflected in the extremely high
quality of the men and women operating both the ships and the weapons.
Some of them are very young, but every one is a computer expert by any
normal standard. All can (or could) command princely salaries "on
the outside," and here indeed lies one of the major problems facing
the Navy today.
Warfare at sea (all over the world, and in all the different venues)
has changed more in recent years, because of the computer and information-technology
revolution, than in the past thousand. It has not stopped changing, and
weapon capabilities have been "improving" (becoming more accurate
and more deadly--and at longer ranges) faster than the general public
can appreciate. But at the same time, the spread of democracy and the
very deadliness of warmaking capability means global wars are less and
Thanks to modern technology, today's ships can be built to last 50 years.
If nuclear, they may never require refueling. Their weapons and computer
technology, in major contrast, must be--and are--constantly updated.
Such a ship, with her crew of irreplaceable people, will not be sent
in harm's way unless fully computer-ready.
And that is where it stands today--unconsciously perhaps, because, unlike
better guns or bigger armor, improvements in computer technology are
invisible--but nonetheless powerful. All that is needed to harness that
power are the qualified technicians--Sailors all--who, as always, will
spell the difference between victory and defeat.
And so, as the U.S. Navy emerges into the new millennium, it mirrors
the technological revolution of a century ago--facing new and as yet
undefined challenges with the confidence of its proud tradition of sea-fighting